As the ball departed Lucas Moura’s left foot, passing the desperate dive of Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana to put Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final with seconds of the match remaining, Mauricio Pochettino loosened his watch.

Spurs had just defied time.

They had also disregarded convention, the absence of Harry Kane and a three-goal aggregate deficit during an “impossible to explain” second half at the Johan Cruyff Arena.

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As the match-winner sprinted towards the away section with Dele Alli and Toby Alderweireld celebrating in close pursuit, eight Ajax players instantly collapsed, burying their faces in the turf.

It was ecstasy and it was agony. It was, as Ajax coach Erik ten Hag gracefully summarised, “football.”

Pochettino fell to his knees, cupping his palms over his face to stem a flow of tears as he bowed his head on the grass. “You feel the passion, you feel the emotion, you live it,” he would recall on being unable to compose himself for hours afterwards.

It wasn’t just about the result – overcoming a 3-0 scoreline away from home without the club captain and talisman – or the dramatic nature of it being secured at the death.

Memories from that entire season, from being told there would be no signings in the summer to having one point after three Champions League group games, flooded Pochettino’s mind.

The Argentine had rewinded further still, to his opening days in charge at Tottenham. They were considered, to borrow Gary Neville’s description, to be “spineless soft, flaky, rubbish” and the squad was beset with self-doubt.

Now here they were, despite all the budgetary restrictions and the inconvenience of playing at Wembley for so long, reaching the final of the greatest club competition in world football on account of resilience and conviction.

“No-one believed in us from the beginning of the season,” Pochettino said post-match, his eyes still heavy.

“If they were heroes before, my players are superheroes now. Every single moment you learn from your players. They are great teachers.

“And I think that every single season, every single tough moment, we learned a lot from our players, from our team. We are so open always to learn. And of course, in the last five years, we were so tough with them, trying to push them to give their best.

“I learned a sentence here in England that is: no pain, no gain. And I think it’s an amazing thing. All the performances that we made in the last five years. It’s today you realise the satisfaction. It was all worth it.”

In the first-leg of the Champions League semi-final, Tottenham were without Kane, Son Heung-min and Harry Winks at home, while Jan Vertonghen suffered a blow to the head.

Spurs had had one shot on target all evening and Ajax, having vanquished Real Madrid and Juventus, were in the ascendancy after 15 minutes courtesy of Donny van de Beek sitting Hugo Lloris down and picking his spot.

The hosts were a distinct second best during the first 30 minutes and only really improved after switching a five-man defence to a back four.

“I can accept it was a mistake, the shape we used,” Pochettino conceded, before highlighting: “The second half was much better, we forced them to play deeper. We pressed in the way we wanted to press. It gave us hope for the second leg.”

Given the gloss Pochettino added to Tottenham, completely renovating the club’s image and the external expectations of the team, it was easy to forget it was their first semi-final in Europe’s chief tournament since 1962.

It was a credit to the manager’s makeover of Spurs that the feat was achieved in spite of so many injuries, the stadium upheaval, and zero investment into the squad during the campaign.

That they had got so far after Pochettino labelled their Champions League’s journey “nearly over” on October 24, 2018 following a dispiriting 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven, was remarkable.

Tottenham were on the ropes in Group B, which also featured Barcelona and Inter Milan, having let in eight goals while collecting a solitary point in three games.

They had the “minimum possibility” of progressing to the knockout stages, with only seven teams in history previously managing such a great escape.

In the final group encounter at Camp Nou, Ousmane Dembele scored within 10 minutes, but Moura’s habit of producing late on rescued the match and resuscitated Tottenham’s European adventure on account of Inter drawing 1-1 with PSV.

Kieran Trippier and Serge Aurier were both injured for that pivotal fixture, with Kyle Walker-Peters having to make his Champions League debut against Barcelona.

Spurs were starting to master the art of reacting to setbacks. They had hoped for a kind draw in the last 16 but faced familiar foes in Borussia Dortmund, whom they tackled at the same stage in the 2016 Europa League, before being grouped with them a season later in the Champions League.

Tottenham produced a second-half showcase to oust their Bundesliga counterparts 3-0 with Vertonghen, the man of the match, operating as a left wing-back.

Juan Foyth was a surprise pick to partner Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez in central defence as Pochettino’s selection gymnastics again masked the impact of being without influential players.

They won the away leg, but were given a thankless, titanic next test in Manchester City.

Worse still, they had to line up against Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut three times in 11 days.

Ahead of the first-leg of the quarter-final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – only the second match at the supreme £1bn ground – the hosts had taken one point from five Premier League fixtures before a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace.

City, in contrast, were on a 14-game unbeaten run in all competitions, which included reaching the FA Cup final.

Pochettino was without Eric Dier, Aurier and Erik Lamela, while Guardiola had the luxury of putting out an unpredictable starting XI.

Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, John Stones, Leroy Sane, Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus were on City’s bench.

The visitors were awarded an early penalty via a pitchside video review after Danny Rose was judged to have handled Raheem Sterling’s shot.

Sergio Aguero stepped up, but a confident. Lloris saved. “That gave the belief to us,” Pochettino said. “There were many positive things. In the spirit we played, everything is possible.”

Tottenham would suffer another blow though, losing Kane to an ankle injury on 58 minutes, but Son’s winner gave them the advantage heading to the Etihad.

They expected City’s conservatism in the first leg to be replaced by a cyclone of intensity and attacking chaos, welcoming the opportunities that would create on the counter.

The opening spell was football on acid. Five goals were scored in 21 minutes to make it 3-2 to City in the game at half-time, but 3-3 to Spurs on aggregate.

Tottenham were without Kane, Winks, Dier and Lamela. Moussa Sissoko was another casualty in the first half, while Dele played with a broken hand.

Their trend of overcoming the odds looked shot when De Bruyne, the standout star, got his third assist of the night, feeding Aguero to beat Lloris at his near post.

City had the comfort of a two-goal cushion, but 14 minutes later, Fernando Llorente bundled in from a corner and VAR ruled there was no handball when it hit the striker’s hip.

It was 4-4 on aggregate, in favour of Spurs.

In injury time, Eriksen ceded possession and the stanza of play ended with Sterling sliding across the pitch believing he had secured a hat-trick, catapulting City into the semi-finals.

The Etihad erupted and the home technical area was a picture of bedlam, but a VAR check was in play.

The decision:  Aguero was in an offside position when Bernardo Silva diverted the ball into his path and so it was Tottenham that progressed.

“That is why we love football,” Pochettino beamed. “We showed great character and great personality. It was an unbelievable game.”

Back to half-time in the second-leg of the semi-final against Ajax and all these vignettes were streaming through as the Tottenham manager designed his team talk.

How could Spurs attempt to erase Matthijs de Ligt’s header and a Hakim Ziyech special, which were added to Van de Beek’s decider from the reverse fixture?

Pochettino and his coaching staff had noticed Ajax’s susceptibility to the high ball and used that as a weapon after the break.

As he would emphasise though: “We planned some changes to start to play different alternatives, but it was not the best team talk of my career, not really, it was just to say to ‘keep going’.

“This win was not because of tactics, or the substitutions I made, it is because we always believed and never give up.”

Moura had struck twice in the space of five minutes to level the score, before Ziyech was denied by the post and Vertonghen hit the crossbar.

With the final whistle approaching, it seemed as though the night would be framed as glorious failure for Tottenham.

But Dele neatly flicked for Moura to complete his treble, sending Spurs to Madrid and “emotions flying out of our bodies,” as Eriksen put it.

“Where we were sitting in the stands was in line with the angle of Lucas’ shot,” Kane said. “Me and Davison were off our seats, following the ball go in, before going nuts with everyone around us.”

For Lloris, it was a case of “pushing ourselves to the limit with spirit, talent and with a lot of desire.”

That comeback served as a splendid snapshot of Pochettino’s Tottenham: a cocktail of bravery, belief, resilience and a willingness to seek solutions rather than accentuate problems.

During his five years at the helm, Spurs were imperfect, but consistently betrayed their limitations and bettered rivals with superior resources.

“To get the club to the final of the Champions League, I think is very close to a miracle,” the 48-year-old concluded.

Tottenham lost the showpiece to a more refined and well-stocked Liverpool, but in the six months post-Pochettino, the club have surrendered much of what came to define them under him.

They will always, at least, have that night in Amsterdam.

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